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Voter ignorance

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A healthy democracy requires an informed and engaged electorate. Yet, around the world, large segments of the population know little about contemporary policy debates or the basic workings of government. How then, can the public hold their elected officials accountable?

I accept that the world is a complex place and that most of us are understandably ignorant about many things. But when it comes to politics, it’s incumbent on all of us to cast an informed vote. Being clueless about what is happening in the political arena is dangerous for society.

Most political analysts posit that the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit outcome both owe their success to an astonishing lack of judgment. Many voters were unaware of the real issues and this laid bare the political schism of our time - the logically informed versus the emotionally uninformed. Put another way, the Trump and Brexit ballots exposed an educational divide among voters.

Polls in the UK revealed that a majority of university graduates were keen on remaining in the EU, while those without a degree voted to leave. Similarly, exit polls in the US indicated that college graduates were more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton, whereas those who were not college graduates inclined towards Donald Trump.

Anti-immigration sentiment was a key issue in both elections, even though immigration is undeniably good for an economy. Also, both questioned whether the prevailing global financial order benefitted the ordinary person in the street, even though capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty and raised living standards.

The frightening reality in our fast-paced digital world is that the average voter spends more time online becoming informed about picking a car than choosing a political candidate. Widespread voter apathy is one of the major shortcomings of modern democracy.

In her latest book, Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy Is Failing to Deliver Economic Growth and How to Fix It, prominent economist and political commentator, Dambisa Moyo, argues that the ideal democracy is one in which as many citizens as possible vote and are armed with the most objective information.

Moyo notes that many democracies, including the US and UK, require migrants to pass government-sanctioned civic tests to gain citizenship. In the same vein, she recommends that all voters should be given a test of their knowledge.

This would ensure minimum standards that should lead to higher-quality decision-making by the electorate. The message this would send is that voting is not just a right, but one that has to be earned. Such testing would not only lead to a better-informed electorate, but also to voters who are more actively engaged.

Moyo argues, quite rightly, that the public is too shortsighted to choose economic policies that will produce long-term prosperity. This, in my opinion, is most evident in the irrational attitude of many citizens to government debt. The ill-informed are seduced by populist politicians who promise to balance the national budget.

However, spending more when the private sector is flagging is a necessary function of government. This is the very point made by Nobel Laureate and leading global economist, Joseph Stiglitz. In an opinion editorial he penned about Australia’s irrational attitude to public debt, he offered the following advice:

Instead of focusing mindlessly on (budget) cuts, Australia should instead seize the opportunity afforded by low global interest rates to make prudent public investments in education, infrastructure and technology that will deliver a high rate of return, stimulate private investment and allow businesses to flourish.

Our harmful misunderstanding of economic policy is also evident when interest rates rise and fall. Interest rates go up when things are overheating and go down when times are tough. It is ironic, therefore, that nit-picking oppositions are critical when interest rates rise (a sign of a strong economy) and glory-seeking governments take the credit when interest rates fall (a sign of a weak economy).

Most economic truths are counter-intuitive. Yet an ignorant public cannot help but endorse intuitively appealing policies in any given instance, since it has so little information to go on. In the words of the US based think-tank, The Cato Institute:

It is little wonder, then, that incumbent politicians are able to take credit for good economic times - regardless of the success, failure, or irrelevance of their economic policies - and that presidents cursed with bad economies usually are booted from office, even if their policies have been sound.

Throughout history, concern has been expressed about government by the people. Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, did not believe that the average citizen had the intellect or strength of will to govern justly. English moral philosopher, John Stuart Mill, believed that many people were not educated to the extent that would make them reliable voters.

Mill suggested that citizens with university degrees or intellectually demanding jobs be given extra votes. More recently, economist Bryan Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, has proposed a voter knowledge test for all citizens to weed out ignorant voters.

My own view is that education is the key to a more literate electorate. Ignorance isn’t bliss when it comes to politics and economics - it’s downright frightening. Extremism has gone mainstream because we don’t know better and this must change.

We teach our kids “hard” subjects like maths and science. So, there’s no reason why we can’t add politics and economics to the curriculum. The next generation of voters must be able to discern if political candidates are pulling the wool over our eyes and just marketing political and economic snake oil.

As things currently stand, Winston Churchill’s words still ring true: The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


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CEO Paul Thomas